County attorney claims discrimination for Jewish heritage

Jeff Blanck points out lack of diversity among department heads

Jeff Blanck originally filed legal claims against Humboldt County last week after the county Board of Supervisors agreed in closed session to place him on paid administrative leave. (Shomik Mukherjee — The Times-Standard file)

Jeff Blanck, Humboldt County’s chief legal counsel, is accusing the county of discriminating against him as its only Jewish appointed department head, the latest claim Blanck has made against his employer in the past week.

Blanck was placed on paid administrative leave March 19 for two unknown complaints filed against him. In his original legal claim, Blanck says the county targeted him for speaking up about alleged misuse of funds.

Now, Blanck says he was unfairly placed on leave when other non-Jewish county employees were allowed to continue working while under investigation for serious claims. He filed suit earlier this week through the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

“I had to look at the question of, ‘Why are they doing this to me and no one else?’” Blanck told the Times-Standard.

Other department heads have been investigated by the county for serious complaints, he added, but few are ever placed on paid leave.

In his original legal claims, Blanck alleged the county denied him the chance to hear complaints filed against him, claims he says arose after he agendized a discussion about the county’s Human Resources department and money it’s paid to an outside legal firm.

The firm, Liebert, Cassidy and Whitmore, previously denied a request for comment. Contacted for comment on Blanck’s latest filing, county spokesperson Sean Quincey reiterated the county’s policy of not speaking to legal matters.

“We take all claims we receive seriously and we do our due diligence to investigate them,” Quincey said. “However, that is very much an internal process, so we won’t talk about claims pending litigation in the press.”

Blanck wore his Jewish faith openly in his capacity as county counsel, he said. He frequently wore his Star of David necklace and took Jewish holidays off for vacation. When a gunman committed a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh this past October, Blanck led an ensuing memorial at Temple Beth El in Eureka.

Blanck’s wife, Sharrone Blanck, is president of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter. In the lawsuit, Jeff Blanck claims their marriage has resulted in him being treated differently.

That his wife is a black woman, Jeff Blanck said, stands out in a county government that he says doesn’t employ many black people.

“They know my wife is active in social issues here and she’s frequently in the paper,” Jeff Blanck said.

This isn’t the first time Blanck has sued an employer. In his interview today, he acknowledged a similar 2004 lawsuit he pursued against a Nevada school district, first brought to light last week by the North Coast Journal.

Blanck had sued the Washoe County School District, where he was employed as legal counsel, claiming the district fired him after he questioned the legality of the district’s superintendent donating over $2,000 in district money to a nonprofit.

“The biggest similarity here is this: I brought to the school board’s attention the misuse of public funds by the superintendent,” he said. “(The superintendent) had a fit and demanded I be fired. Three months later, he quit because of public outcry against him.”

Blanck eventually lost the lawsuit, which he blamed on the “anti-public-employee” nature of Nevada state law. He proceeded to work for years as a private practice attorney in Nevada. Humboldt County appointed him legal counsel in 2015 and the county Board of Supervisors renewed him for a four-year term in December.

“Fifteen years ago is not a pattern in legal practice,” he said, emphasizing that in both cases, he raised concerns before his employer took action against him. “I reported the financial abuse; I did my job and they shot the messenger.”

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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